Home > Uncategorized > A disability abuse investigation agency bill has two words in it that could authorize the agency to seal all its investigative records

A disability abuse investigation agency bill has two words in it that could authorize the agency to seal all its investigative records

We are expressing concern over two words in a bill concerning the state Disabled Persons Protection Commission (DPPC) that could authorize the agency to seal all of its investigative records regarding abuse of persons with disabilities in Massachusetts.

In an email we sent this week to state Representative Aaron Michlewitz, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, and other key lawmakers, we pointed out the potential problem inherent in the language of Section 17 of what is now H.4231. The bill section would change the DPPC’s enabling statute to state that “all confidential information” in the DPPC’s possession shall not be a public record.

The DPPC is the state’s only independent agency charged with investigating allegations of abuse and neglect of adults under the age of 60 with developmental and other disabilities. The DPPC has jurisdiction over a wide range of investigations done by its own staff and the staff of a variety of other agencies.

Those are the two problematic words in Section 17 of H.4231: “confidential information.”

We have no objection to a separate portion of the same sentence in the section stating that “all personally identifying information” shall not be public. But the “confidential information” phrase is poorly defined and so overly broad that we think it would give DPPC the discretion to label virtually anything it wants as confidential and therefore secret.

We are asking people to call the House Ways and Means Committee at (617) 722-2990, and simply urge them to take the words “confidential information” out of Section 17 of H.4231.

As we understand it, Section 17 was recently reworded by the Children, Families, and Persons with Disabilities Committee to respond to concerns we raised last year that the section would potentially make most of the records of the DPPC non-public. The reworded language would be fine with us if the House Ways and Means Committee would simply take out those two words.

Here’s our reasoning for this, in a nutshell:

Right now, DPPC’s enabling statute (M.G.L. Chapter 19C) simply says that the Commission should “…disclose as little personally identifiable information as possible.” There is no reference in the enabling statute to “confidential information.” The enabling statute, moreover, invites the presumption that the agency’s records overall are public. Nowhere does the enabling statute state that the DPPC’s records, in general, are not public.

The DPPC’s regulations, however, do refer to “confidential information,” and define it as including “personal data” and “any and all notes, papers, documents or other investigative materials, including but not limited to interview summaries, collected or compiled by personnel duly authorized by the Commission during the course of an investigation.”

This DPPC regulation (118 CMR 9.03) also specifically states that: “The records of the Commission shall not be considered ‘public records'” (my emphasis).

So, there are at least two inconsistencies between the DPPC’s regulations and its enabling statute, and it would seem that what DPPC is trying to do is make its enabling statute consistent with its regulations in stating at anything that it considers “confidential” is not a public record. As we’ve said before, though, this is a bad direction for DPPC to go. It should change its regulations to be consistent with its enabling statute, not the other way around.

It would seem that what DPPC wants to do is to be able to say that all investigative materials of any kind are potentially confidential and therefore not public records. That is bad news for the public’s right to know.

We actually don’t think Section 17, as a whole, of H.4231 is necessary for reasons I’ll get to below. But, as noted, what we are recommending is that, at the very least, the House Ways and Means Committee remove the words “confidential information” from the section.

Our argument with respect to Section 17 and to DPPC’s secrecy regarding its records in general has always been about the public’s right to know. Complaint-specific information can be a key window into the nature of problems of abuse and neglect in the care of persons with disabilities and in how the state deals with those problems.

Section 17 isn’t necessary

As noted, we don’t think Section 17, as a whole, of H.4231 is needed. The DPPC’s enabling statute, as currently written, gives DPPC the discretion to block “personally identifiable” information, and so does the state’s Public Records Law itself.

The Public Records Law (M.G.L. Chapter 4, Section 7, Clause 26) specifically exempts from disclosure  “data relating to a specifically named individual, the disclosure of which may constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The Public Records Law further exempts “investigatory materials…the disclosure of which materials would probably so prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement that such disclosure would not be in the public interest.”

The Public Records Law presumes state agency records are public

As the Secretary of the Commonwealth has opined, the state’s Public Records Law presumes all state agencies’ records are public unless a specific exemption in the Public Records Law applies to those records. The first exemption listed in the Public Records Law, known as “exemption (a),” is the enactment of another statute that exempts records of any kind from disclosure.

If Section 17 of H.4231 is enacted as currently drafted, it would change the DPPC’s enabling statute to specifically prevent the disclosure of any material deemed “confidential.” As a result, if any member of the public were to ask for any information that DPPC considered confidential, DPPC could invoke Exemption (a) of the Public Records Law without having to demonstrate that the information was personally identifiable or that it would prejudice effective law enforcement.

DPPC could simply refer to the vague “confidential information” phrase in its enabling statute, and the agency could forever seal those records from public disclosure. The state Public Records Supervisor’s hands would be tied in those cases if anyone were to file an appeal of the denial of the records by DPPC.

So, once again, we believe the potential problem we have described can be avoided by the simple removal of the words “confidential information” from Section 17 of H.4231.  We hope the House Ways and Means Committee does that, or, better yet, removes Section 17 altogether.

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